NATCHITOCHES, La (NSU) - Although he played quarterback for the majority of his football career, Northwestern State head coach Brad Laird’s time as the Demons quarterback, on and off the field, from 1991-95 gave him a keen appreciation for offensive linemen and their culture.
“My roommates were O-linemen,” Laird said. “I lived that for five years. I’m not going to say I’m smart, but I was smart enough to realize who I needed to hang around with to be protected. That’s important for a quarterback.”
Often unnoticed, offensive linemen form one of the more unique position groups in all of sport, producing a closely-knit culture.
The 2019 Demons unit falls squarely in that realm.
“It’s a tight group,” Laird said. “No matter where you are, what school you’re at, that group stays together. This group has a lot of older guys, seniors, guys who have experience and who have played a lot of football together on top of their off-the-field relationship. It’s an intriguing group as far as what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done.”
It is a group that often features three senior starters in center Dustin Burns, tackle Jonathan Hubbard, and guard Chris Zirkle. A pair of sophomores, guard Kenny Sheldon and tackle Jake Gore, have started all eight games. Before Saturday’s overtime win at then-No. 20 Incarnate Word, that quintet had started the first seven games of the season. Junior Brody Griffin stepped in for Hubbard in the starting lineup against the Cardinals.
The familiarity has helped drive more consistent performances from the group.
“We’ve played with the same guys all week and the past couple of years,” Burns said. “You play differently with each person you play next to. If a twist or a combo comes along, I block it different with Zirkle than I do with Kenny. We know each other’s tendencies. We’re able to use that to our advantage and know where each other’s inconsistencies are. We can pick up each other’s slack.”
It also has helped them bond around a diverse group of personalities.
From some uniquely cropped facial hair in fall camp to matching suits worn during Natchitoches’ annual Christmas Festival, the Demons’ offensive line stands together.
“That’s just offensive line culture,” senior guard Tyler Rapp said. “As a unit, we like to hang out together, eat together, spend our free time together. It’s something you do as an offensive lineman. There’s no position as unique as ours. We literally lean on each other so we can play as one. The brotherhood, the bonds you gain, the friendships you earn, it’s unreal.”
Helping drive the positional culture bus is offensive line coach J Pond, who is in his second year at Northwestern State.
Pond’s background as an offensive lineman at Texas A&M gave him plenty of cachet with his linemen.
“Coach Pond is big into offensive line culture,” Rapp said. “Every guy who’s played understands how that is. We enjoy playing as one, playing for him, playing for this team.”
While offensive linemen usually draw nicknames like “Big Uglies” or “Hog Mollies,” terms that sound unappealing, most who play those positions take them as terms of endearment.
That group helped push the Demons to their first win of the season this past Saturday and will try to add to that against McNeese at 4 p.m. Saturday. To do so, they will embrace their roles – “each of us doing our one-eleventh,” Burns said – when on the field or on the sideline.
“We feel like we’re the heart and soul of the team,” Rapp said. “The energy comes from us. If we’re dead, the team’s dead. It drives our cohesion. It’s a lot of fun going out and doing the greatest job in the world.”
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